16 to 21 March 2018: Having successfully completed 16 days of trekking in Nepal on the Annapurna Circuit in December, the 6 day Singalila Ridge trek in the Himalayas didn’t sound too big a deal. But in actual fact it was a bit more challenging than it seemed at first blush.
Weather wise, we were relatively lucky although it didn’t seem that way on day 1 in the afternoon when it started hailing. Although hail has the advantage that it doesn’t get you wet, it doesn’t half hurt if you suffer a direct hit on the head (thank goodness for my Nepali woolly hat). It did rain a little too but this was only a passing shower and essentially, we remained dry throughout the trek. But a clear start to Day 2 gave way to a very cloudy afternoon: in fact that afternoon’s climb was done without being able to see more than about 10 metres ahead which made it a bit hard going, especially as this part of the trek was the steepest and at altitude reaching the trek’s highest point of 3636m. At this height, it was also pretty cold, especially at night when the thermometer dropped to about minus 4 degrees Celcius. While the various rooms’ insulation wasn’t brilliant (albeit marginally better than their Nepali tea house counterparts), there were a lot of blankets so we kept warm enough.
Visibility on the afternoon of Day 2
The food was great. Unlike Nepal, there wasn’t any choice, but there was a lot of food including the mountain staple of dall baht (rice and lentils). Vegetable soup also featured frequently, usually served with popcorn (??) or on one occasion with (rather delicious) roast potatoes and on another, some carrots and green beans. Tasty as they were, these pairings were a bit odd but the trekking gave us large appetites so everything was eaten! Again the Tibetan influence was clearly visible and we also ate thukpa (noodle soup), thukten (pasta soup) and momos (dumplings). In fact in one tea house, we were shown how to make momos: let’s just say that I’m not sure that all the momos made by a certain person would pass rigorous quality control standards!
Breakfast and lunch sweet spots
However, the best thing about the trek on the refreshment front was the endless tea stops: guess this was a bonus of trekking in Darjeeling and was great!
But the trek obviously wasn’t really about the food, accommodation or weather of course. Instead it was all about being outside in the foothills of the Himalayas admiring the spectacular scenery, most importantly at 5.30am (sunrise) when we were lucky enough to get some spectacularly clear views. The panoramas were simply stunning. From both the high point at Sandakphu (3636m) and then again at Phalut (3600m) we had clear views of both the Everest cluster (including Lhotse (8501m) and Makalu (8475m)) but better still of the Kanchenjunga range (including Kabru (7338m), Jannu (7710m) and Pandim (6691m). At Phalut we were only 11km away from the world’s 3rd highest peak, Kanchenjunga (8598m), as the crow flies albeit 5km lower. Perspective is of course a funny thing: while Everest is of course the world’s highest mountain (8848m), because Makalu was so much closer to us, it overshadowed Everest a little from this specific viewpoint.
Left: Everest range; Right: Kanchenjunga range (this view is also known as the “Sleeping Buddha” with the head on the left and feet on the right)
Up until Phalut, we were on and off the jeep “track” which comprised of relatively sharp stones. This was hard to walk along (without twisting an ankle) and would have been hard (painful) to drive along too. But also, it would, in my view, have been nigh on impossible to run along and yet during this part of our trek, we were in fact following an Ultra Marathon course – a 150km run which is apparently completed in 5 days by who knows what hardy (crazy??) souls.
The last part of the trek was away from the ridge itself walking through forested areas and also past villages impossibly perched on the edges of steep hills (it seemed a miracle that the buildings didn’t just slide down the hills into the valley a long way below). Here there were lots of agricultural terraces: evidently we were passing through in the pea growing season as these were in full growth.
As seems usual given the geography of the area, there were a lot of sharp climbs and a few steep descents as well. Then of course there was a lot of the infamous “Nepali flat” sections where overall in one day the net descent or ascent may only be 100m or so but to get to that point you have gone up and down several hundred metres many times over (nothing is truly flat around here). And yes, the reference to “Nepali” is correct: people in Darjeeling speak Nepali (or at least a version thereof) as their first language and the “mountain people” on this side of the border are pretty similar to those on the other side! In fact this trek took us in and out of Nepal proper (we were forever having to register ourselves/our passports at random military checkpoints) and my mobile phone just couldn’t cope with the 15 minute time difference between India and Nepal and kept flicking back and forth wildly!! This is when an old fashioned mechanical watch wins out against modern technology!
Left: border post
Despite the lack of red panda sightings and only a small number of rhododendron in bloom, all in all, this was a good trek (albeit possibly at times more in the Type 2 (rather than Type1) category of fun!!). It has to be said it was also nice to get into a hot shower at the end!
Magical view from Sandakphu at sunrise over Kanchenjunga